Maya lived with Peter for fourteen years without God’s or Dade County’s blessing. When Peter died and his children flew in and divided the property—the art, the furnishings, even the clothing—she held back tears until they left, then cried abundantly in the mornings when his death seemed most impossible, a nightmare carried into day.
His ocean-view condo, infinity pool in front and swim-up bar in back, was sold. Maya returned to her rundown Miami bungalow, the floor collapsing beneath her grief because termites had eaten the foundation. Sea air pushed through the cracked windows. She covered them with butcher paper, casting a pall over the small rooms.
She moved back in with few possessions, the adjustable bed she’d shared with Peter that he died in, a rug she’d taken before his children arrived. Small compensations for counting pills and spooning applesauce into a toothless hole.
Only sixty-five, twenty years younger than Peter, she had some beauty left. She was slim and compact with black kinky hair that brushed the small of her back, but she vowed she would never be with another man. It had taken too much out of her to love Peter.
They had met shortly after his wife died, when he was looking for someone to cook for him. The extra money appealed to her. She won him over with her fried plantains and rice con gandules. The bedroom wasn’t far from the kitchen.
She had fallen for his wry, democratic charm, for the way he lifted his trimmed gray eyebrows when she entered a room, as if her very existence was an agreeable surprise. Doormen, shoeshine men asked after Peter. But his personality, like his body, withered after the stroke. Even as she sponged and turned him, her feelings for him never lessened.
She hired a contractor to repair the floor in the bungalow. Alberto wasn’t a young man, but he combed his hair in the style of the young, applying mousse that appeared as small clouds of white foam against his unnaturally black hair. His khaki shirt fit snugly.
Maya sat at a weathered pine table spinning the nub of a pencil, reviewing the estimate he had given her. “It costs too much.”
“It costs what it costs. You can make payments.”
“Make payments with what?”
He looked through the bedroom door at the adjustable bed with massage settings. “You can give me that.” He pointed to the bed. The couch was a sleeper with springs that complained, but it would do.
Alberto got to work pulling up slats in the living room floor.
Maya received Social Security from her time working in a hospital, making calls to collect bills from people as poor as herself. She had worked there for twenty years, quitting after she moved in with Peter. The government check lasted half the month. Then she joined lines at soup kitchens alongside other retirees who stared hopelessly into orange plastic trays. Maya wore a large Marlins cap with the bill pulled down in the windowless YMCA basement, and mumbled thanks to the servers.
She had forgotten how to live without money, forgotten the racks of expired bread and overripe bananas in the back of the supermarket and government programs that could pay for her eyeglasses. It seemed unfair to have to learn all that again when learning no longer came easily.
Her time of eating filet mignon and drinking vintage Tuscan wines with Peter was over. She thought often of his airy apartment, his startling art—giant frogs leaping about in one painting, a fat man and woman dancing in another. She had pushed his wheelchair into galleries where he was greeted by name—Mr. Drayson. He pointed to what he liked. The staff overlooked Maya, until Peter asked her opinion. Then they rushed to get her a glass of water to match his and she observed their confusion over who and what she was. She drank, though she wasn’t thirsty, hiding her face behind the glass until her anger passed.
His three daughters never visited, not until he was dying. Then they came and cried and read the will and stopped crying.
Maya slept fitfully on the couch and woke irritated the next morning. It was not quite seven o’clock when she walked to the Holy Family Catholic Church, passing a check-cashing place and a cell phone store, metal shutters still down for the night. A barefoot woman curled up in a doorway, likely sleeping but possibly dead. Afraid to get too close, Maya couldn’t tell. The air hung motionless, smelling of the sea and stale garbage.
At church she arranged to have a Mass said for Peter, though he was an atheist. She dropped a dollar in the plate and cursed Peter for not marrying her or at least leaving her something so she wouldn’t have to rely on charity. She confessed.
“Anger is a venial sin,” the young priest said.
“What if it’s justified?”
“Pray for the anger to leave your heart.”
Maya remembered why she rarely went to church. She clutched the narrow shelf in the confessional. “He hid our relationship from his children.”
“No good comes from living together without the holy sacrament.” The priest spoke quickly, as if a line of parishioners were waiting to confess, but in truth the church was almost empty. No one cared about the poor, not even the priest, who wore Armani shoes and a bright collar.
When she got home, Alberto was working. Only the top of his head showed above the hole he had excavated. Sawdust littered his hair.
“I almost fell in last night.” She sat on the couch.
He looked up from the hole. “You wouldn’t be the first.” Dirt lodged in the wrinkles next to his eyes. His face was as round as a tortilla.
“What about some cones? Like the ones on the highway.”
“I’d have to lift them from a construction site.”
She rested her head against the wall and contemplated the gray ceiling paint peeling in husks. “This house needs to be painted.”
“You hiring me for another job?”
“Yes, but I had only one bed.” She looked regretfully into the empty bedroom.
“What did you do for a living?”
“I collected bills for the hospital.”
Alberto scratched his stomach. “I called the hospital once. When my wife was dying. They gave us a payment plan, but they wouldn’t cut the bill.”
“If it was up to me I would have cut your bill.”
Alberto shook his head. “You say that now. But people like power when they have it.”
“Don’t hold it against me.”
“Maybe you could collect bills for me. I’ll give you ten percent. Before you know it, you’ll have enough money for painting.”
Alone that night, Maya remembered the early years with Peter when he had teeth and his body was capable of pleasing her. Once he took her to a dinner party where waiters in tuxedos served steaming lobster out of the shell. He dipped the flesh in butter and fed it to her, unmindful of sideways looks from other guests. She was excited by his attentions but embarrassed he had introduced her simply as Maya—not wife, or girlfriend, or even the lesser friend. Was it her imagination or did her skin grow darker among that crowd? The other women wore heavy jewels as if unaware of them.
When they returned from dinner, they sat in the living room opposite each other on white leather chairs. Elbows on his knees, fingers interlaced, Peter stared at the ebony floor and told her how he had worked throughout college as a busboy in an Upper East Side Manhattan restaurant favored by his Columbia classmates. “You can’t imagine the things they left for me to clean up,” he whispered.
He rarely spoke of anything but his success. Maya mourned his humiliation but was secretly pleased he shared it with her. It had convinced her of their bond.
Now she climbed off the worn fabric couch, hands pressed to her stomach. It was the fifteenth of the month. Her Social Security check wouldn’t arrive until the twentieth. She brewed a pot of coffee and drank three cups.
The next morning Alberto arrived late, his pallor yellow, his hair in disarray.
“Do you want some coffee?” she asked.
“My wife visited me in my sleep. She hit me with a hammer for cheating on her. I told her when you work in houses where women are home you are bound to end up in bed with them.”
“What did she say?”
“She kept beating me.” He seemed reluctant to climb in the hole. “Why don’t I measure for painting? Then, if you get some money, you’ll know what it costs.”
“Measure anything you want. But money isn’t like rain.”
He extracted a tape measure, a pencil and a notepad from his toolbox. He put on glasses held together with copper wire and worked out the numbers. After a while—longer than necessary, it seemed—he told her what it would cost.
“Now I know,” she said.
“Now you know.”
He resumed his work and she heard the electrical saw cutting out diseased wood and smelled sawdust and mud. The hammer tapped in healthy pine joists, which had their own smell, optimistic, like you would expect from something recently alive.
Alberto’s notes were on the table, showing the measurements he had taken for painting, the heights and widths. But he hadn’t factored in the cost of paint or time. Instead, he had sketched the room, the paper over the cracked windows and a gaping hole in the middle of the floor. He had drawn her sitting on the couch, a cup of coffee in hand, her hair pinned back (though she was wearing it down) to accentuate her cheekbones. As for the estimate, he made it up. She tore the sketch out of his notebook, crumpled it and threw it in the trash. It was a flattering portrait, but she was tired of men deceiving her.
That afternoon, Alberto finished the foundation and rebuilt the floor with weathered plywood the owners of another house had wanted removed. He sanded the surface so Maya wouldn’t get splinters. The wood was gray and pocked with knotholes, rough despite the sanding. Maya couldn’t smell it at all. But it was solid and for that she was grateful.
In the kitchen, Alberto lingered over a glass of ice water. He scratched his forehead, licked his lips and pressed the glass to his cheek. Maya could tell what was coming but didn’t encourage it. “Why don’t I take you to dinner?” he said.
She agreed because she was hungry. She wished he would take a shower, but he led her straight to his truck.
He opened the passenger door and cleared the front seat of a saw and termite spray. It had been a long time since Maya had hoisted herself into a truck and blood rushed to her head from the exertion. Peter had a BMW and a driver who opened the door for her.
Alberto drove to a Mexican restaurant nearby. “This was my wife’s favorite restaurant.”
Maya didn’t say anything. Men didn’t have any sense of what a woman wanted to hear. Not even Alberto, who wanted to get into every woman’s bed.
Above their booth, a yellow bulb flickered in a tin wall sconce. Maya ordered chalupas with beef. When they came, she took a deep breath and a large bite and patted the sides of her mouth to keep the beef from leaking out. It felt good to be sitting opposite a man, even if the man had sawdust in his hair. So many of her meals these days were taken alone or among people she didn’t know.
She had ordered the supremo so she would have leftovers for the next day. With great effort she refrained from eating it all. She asked the waitress for another basket of chips and a refill of Coke.
When it came, Alberto lifted his red plastic cup. “To forgetting the dead!”
Maya knew then Alberto’s wife had been at the dinner, but she raised her cup to be polite.
Alberto dropped her at her house. “Can I take you out again?”
She looked at his stained pants and calculated how long it would be before her next Social Security check ran out. “Call me in a few weeks.” She planned to dress like a nun.